Sunshine, Kim Kelly

The lives of three men and a women, returned from the front after World War I, intersect in a new offering from Kim Kelly – an historical novella set in the fictional hamlet of Sunshine in far north-western New South Wales, ‘out the back of Bourke’.

Snow, Grace and Art are each looking for something real in their lives to fill the holes left by war. Snow blames himself for the death of a dear friends, Art’s trauma left him hospitalised and shamed by a nervous paralysis, and Grace, a ‘surgical nurse and do-it-yourself butcher’ has seen too much.  A fresh start is offered by the Australian Government’s Solider Settlement scheme—a well-meaning though ill-considered plan to give returned soldiers parcels of land on which to farm.  Many divisions were worthless, unable to yield a decent crop and the scheme was eventually abandoned. Kelly’s gentle examination of a nascent modern Australia reminds us also of its founding on theft through the Scheme’s dispossession of the Indigenous population. These intertwined stories about citrus crops along the Darling River illustrate some of its hopes and successes.

After serving Australia in a foreign war, Aboriginal horseman Jack Bell returns to a nation which has broken his family and removed his livelihood. On five shillings a day, signing up was a leap into riches, and respect, impossible at home. He muses, ‘No such distinction as black of white but yes sir and no sir, get on with the friggen job. Why did it have to take the insanity of war to make things so equal and reasonable as that? Stupid friggen question.’ Now, the Government wants him ‘looked after’ on a mission. Bucking at that, he returns to the land of his birth and finds it divided and apportioned to other returned soldiers. White soldiers.

Snow McGlynn receives such an allocation. He has retreated within himself, wants no company, and needs to throw himself into his farm to forget the pain of war and loss. Snow muses early on, ‘He didn’t have anything against blacks, not really, but they always made a mess and had their hand out … ‘  Through his developing relationship with Jack, Kelly opens our eyes to Australia’s rank hypocrisy as Snow becomes alive to Jack’s knowledge of and connection with the land, and the racism underpinning Snow’s own good fortune. Both returned soldiers—one rewarded, the other stripped of his dignity and self-determination.

Art Lovelee has been hospitalised with a  phantom paralysis. Shamed and infantilised, the prevailing medical view was to ignore their symptoms and jolly them along, like children. Through Art, Kelly quietly reminds us that the ‘deranged’ have forever been feared, their illness taboo. ReadingSunshinebrought back Pat Barker’s Regeneration Trilogy(Penguin 1996) which powerfully evokes soldiers’ trauma in the First World War and Kelly includes in her epigraph a verse from Siegfried Sassoon, the wartime poet who features so strongly in Barker’s work.

Art finds himself in the care of Grace who coaxes him back to health, then follows him to Australia. She has her own demons. She remembers too well the screams of the boy whose eyes she had to wash of poison gas from ‘the green cloud, from the devil’s very breath that swept across Flanders Fields.’ She remembers the amputees and the men carrying metal bullets in their bodies.

Kelly’s writing is clear and joyous. While she writes of dispossession and death, her message is hopeful. There is beauty all around—Grace, transplanted from cold, damp England to a parched and hot land looks to the future. Bending down to pick up a scrap she thinks has come from her washing, she sees it is a daisy,

… a little blue daisy, sitting in a sparse and thirsty-looking clump of grass. She crouched down to peer at it: a baby-blue wheel, so stark, so fabulous, here upon the rich red timeless soil: and such a surprise: she reminded herself all joy was surprising, never coming as dreamed or planned.

Kim Kelly Sunshine Jazz Monkey Publications 2019 PB 222pp $20.53

First published by the Newtown Review of Books  on 5 March 2019

Shell, Kristina Olsson

Find my review of Kristina Olsson’s Shell at the Newtown Review of Books,   published this week.

Its piercing look at consequences of Australia’s inability to understand itself, and reconcile, stood out for me

Through Pearl and Axel, Olsson brings the reader to mid-1960s Sydney. The visionary awarding of the design to Utzon —  the result of an international competition — is accompanied by a stultifying timidity from a culture still making undrinkable coffee. The social changes brought by the waves of European immigration are yet to take hold:

He picked at the slices of bread in his hand, the odd contents of his sandwich. There was something yellow and viscous on the cheese that didn’t look or smell right. Jago leaned towards him. Corn relish, he said quietly. It makes me cry also.

Read more at Newtown Review of Books.

 

The Museum of Modern Love, reviewed in Newtown Review of Books

I was late to this party. I’d heard about this novel, and when I finally found time for fiction this year, I lost myself in it immediately. Heather Rose has written a masterpiece of introspection. The reader pauses to look up from the page and reflect, to remember a passage over the course of the day and stop for a moment, or longer, to ask us why? What would I do?

Wrapping her stories around the work of a living artist—Rose sought, and was granted approval—is a gift. To read is to learn, and the book is set around the life and work of the performance artist Marina Abramović, specifically her performance ‘The Artist is Present’ at the Museum of Modern Art in New York in 2010. Over 75 days, she sat in a simple wooden chair. When a visitor took the seat opposite, she would lift her head, open her eyes as a veil lifting, and sit in that stance for as long as her counterpart stayed. ‘Is it a staring competition?’ ask visitors to the Museum.

What is art? A question surely as old as art itself. Abramović suggests that art is life. And just as the artists invited those who sat with her to participatein the art, Heather Rose asks us to turn inwards. We are not observers. We are participants who need to reconcile with life. The Museum of Modern Loveasks us, How do we learn to see what is before us?

Rose invites the reader into the life of Arky Levin, a famous NY composer. Arky’s perspective guides us though the exhibition and he forms a companionable, though disinterested bond with Jane Miller, a tourist and fellow gallery visitor. They are both distracted, lost andcontemplating uncertainty.  Jane’s husband has died, too young; her grief, one year on, still palpable. Jane ‘has always liked certainty. It was one of the pleasure of being a teacher…’ She wants more time: time with her husband, time for her own life.

Levin is flailing. His wife, suffering an inherited degenerative condition has removed herself from his life,  admitting herself to fulltime care in an institution.  ‘She had been certainty. When everything fell apart, she would be there. It was partly why he always felt so angry when she got sick. He didn’t like that the whole world wobbled when that happened, and he felt small. Small and alone.’

There were questions that terrified his sense of order. His deepest sense of how life should be lived. Ought to be lived. But should and ought were words for certainty. What words belonged to uncertainty?

Abramović, their mirror, faces uncertainty each time she takes up her position in the performance, opening the door to new knowledge. The intensity of their Museum experience forces both Jane and Levin to focus their gaze, to see what cannot be avoided. And finally, Levin understands, ‘with vivid clarity that the best ideas come from a place with a sign on the door saying I don’t know…’

In a further twist on the role of observer and the observed, occasionally Rose draws back and follows the participants going about their day through different narrators, hovering on the edges. One is perhaps the muse, or a higher consciousness. ‘I drew Levin’s attention to the day outside … For all he wasn’t listening to my musical suggestions, he was amendable to an interruption…I watched him. There is nothing more beautiful than watching an artist at work….’  Yet another is from Marina’s past who shows us how a childhood of physical and emotional deprivation in times of war shaped her performance art. We are reminded of the power that the dead have over us.

Other characters, students and commentators seamlessly integrate the artist’s background and body of work into the story taking the reader on a journey through her life. And Rose has held a mirror to us, the reader, through the very ordinariness of those who sit opposite. A young man slumping, ‘[Jane] wanted to tell him to sit up straight’, ‘a young woman with a tiny pair of shoulders and long lank hair…she appeared to be bowed under the weight of a short and exhausting life….’, those frail, and others defiant.

This is also a New York story. For those who love the city, from the residents’ style and beauty —‘three-day growth on his perfect jawline’—to the  food—onion bagels get more than one mention, to the buildings, streets and avenues, every page is a delight. Levin knows that New York’s light obliterates a darkness, a void that is both the universe and his own sense of aloneness. For Jane, the visitor, it is a temporary haven.

Rose has written a powerful story of lives interrupted and of seeking, and finding and learning. The Museum of Modern Love is about both understanding our choices and finding the strength to make them.

First published in The Newtown Review of Books.

The Museum of  Modern Love, Heather Rose (Allen & Unwin 2016 RRP $27.99)